“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”
In the classic era of cinema, female characters had an interesting but disappointing trait: they relied on the male characters to move the plot along. Though there were some strong female characters in the 30s and 40s, they were usually portrayed as less capable than the males, and the plot usually didn’t go anywhere until the males got involved. In most movies of that era, the females were also very dependent on the males. (I know there will undoubtedly be some exceptions, but this was the norm.) This era started to die off in the 50s (although traces of it can still be seen today), and for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1951 movie The African Queen. Directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a movie that not only defined the romantic adventure genre (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean are modern derivatives), but it also showed that a female lead who is in every way her male co-star’s equal can make for a successful film.
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“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”
It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.
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“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”
A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.
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“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Though often overlooked, disaster movies are big business. The airplane subgenre alone currently has 77 entries—and the movie Airplane! lampoons all of them. It was written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who were known mostly for sketch comedy at the time (Kentucky Fried Movie), but went on to write other parodies like the Hot Shots and Naked Gun series. It was also the first comedic performance of traditionally serious actors like Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges, who went on to be comedy legends. Whether you get the parody references or not, the movie is a serious contender for best comedy of all time and still holds up very well today.
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“It’ll be just like in the movies: pretending to be somebody else.”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that makes you question everything you’ve seen. Fight Club and Donnie Darko have walked this path; but very few movies do it as masterfully as Mulholland Drive. Written and directed by surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks) and starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, this is a movie that takes the typical Hollywood ending and shoots it and leaves it in a gutter to die. Most movies will cleanly wrap everything up by the end of the film, but this one seems to introduce new questions right up until the unexpected ending. Truth be told, it’s best that you go into an initial viewing without knowing a lot about the movie, so I’m going to leave the conversation on this one pretty sparse and reveal absolutely no spoilers. The movie is brilliant, though, if you’re willing to put in the time to piece things together.
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“There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.”
In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.
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“Be careful with that gun! This ain’t no cartoon, you know!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that asks, What if cartoons were real? These are usually cute and funny—for instance, Space Jam answers the age-old question of how well cartoons can play basketball. The original, though, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it tells a very different story. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and starring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film noir that asks what happens when a cartoon murders someone. It follows the classic film noir formula, but injects it with classic cartoon gags and logic. The result is a darkly funny and unabashedly unique mystery-comedy that’s unlike any other movie out there.
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